(2016) Kij Johnson, Tor Books, £9.99, pbk, 172pp, ISBN 978-0-765-39141-4
Professor Vellitt Boe teaches at the prestigious Ulthar Women’s College. When one of her most gifted students elopes with a dreamer from the waking world, Vellitt must retrieve her. It’s bad enough that the father of the student is a rich and powerful man with the power and the money to have the women’s college closed down, but it’s even worse when it turns out that the student is a grand-daughter of a mad, sleeping god, and other mischievous, or downright, bad gods, are whispering in his ear, and if she is still gone when he awakes he has the power to scorch the land and everything on it, clean. Vellitt Boe used to be an adventurer, a walker, a hiker, a traveller, but those days are long gone, and now she has to dig out that rucksack, those boots and all the other little travelling paraphernalia from those days, and take the long road again in the company of a capricious cat that tags along for the ride.
Here, Kij Johnson is riffing off Lovecraft’s story 'The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath' and giving it a modern spin, and re-writing it from a female perspective and toning down the racism and the prejudice. In many ways this is classic quest territory – there are lands to cross and oceans to sail over. There are things to take on the journey, food to eat, letters of credit to smooth the way, but Vellitt needs to travel fast and light, or as fast as her aging legs will take her. She meets sailors and fellow travellers. She looks harmless, a bit eccentric, a victim to be robbed, perhaps, and she almost is. But there are worse things than being robbed, and almost matter-of-factly, she recalls being raped on one of her previous adventures. Yet, this is a woman made of steel, and it starts to show through as she sings and dances with the sailors and meets people she has encountered previously, men who have not aged well including Randolph Carter the master dreamer and her former lover who was the hero of the original Lovecraft story.
But this is not a regular quest. There might be seas and mountains but there are also a whole host of Lovecraftian horrors who want to kill her, eat her, steal her soul, and all the while the gods are watching, and are ready to intervene if things aren’t going their way.
I have never read any Kij Johnson before, but I will after this, because this is a novella that builds and builds and builds and the plot just races along in unexpected places as Vellitt becomes a prisoner of the ghasts but some thing remembers her from its youth and together they race towards the dream world and the final twenty pages are just perfection and I finished the last page and said “wow”. Wow, Read this and you might too.
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